The Clothworkers’ Company: 500 years of history and one very special home

Clothworkers' Hall

Getting the opportunity to see inside the home of one of the twelve great livery companies of London is always exciting – especially when the Company itself will soon turn 500 years old. Today, together with a group of fellow London Historians, I visited Clothworkers’ Hall – home to The Clothworkers’ Company.

Our visit commenced with a very interesting presentation by the Company’s Archivist, Hannah. The Clothworkers’ Company, so I learned today, was founded in 1528 through the merger of two predecessor guilds, the Fullers and Shearmen, who united to form a more powerful company against their rivals. With a Royal Charter granted by King Henry VIII, it was agreed the Company would be headed by a Master who would be supported in his work by four Wardens. Detailed instructions on the governance of the Company were approved by Sir Thomas More, then England’s Lord Chancellor, in 1532.

The Company’s original remit was to regulate the finishing of woven woollen cloth within the City of London by supervising the training of apprentices, setting standards of workmanship and settling internal domestic squabbles. Bear in mind that wool, at this time, was one of the main sources of the country’s wealth and it’s not hard to understand why the Clothworkers quickly became a powerful company.

One aspect of the talk that I found particularly interesting is how much the role of the Company has evolved. By the time of the Industrial Revolution, its craft role had declined and the Company began to focus, instead, upon charitable activities. It supported poverty-stricken apprentices, paid pensions to needy members and gave grants to deserving causes. Its income came from various sources, including membership fees, monetary gifts and property bequests; all of these resources have been carefully managed over the years, enabling it to do a great deal of important work.

In 1977, the organisation was registered as a charity in its own right and it has gone on to donate £120m to charitable causes. It maintains a proactive grant programme, targeting projects which improve the lives of people and of communities.

Together with our new-found knowledge, we set off on a tour of Clothworkers’ Hall. What I hadn’t realised – and is not immediately apparent – is that this is actually quite a new building. It’s fair to say that the Hall has experienced its fair share of trauma across the centuries – from being razed to the ground during the Great Fire of London of 1666, to being obliterated during a bombing raid during the Second World War. The building in which we found ourselves today, on Mincing Lane, is the sixth Hall, having opened in 1958 – the first, which originally belonged to the Shearmen, was built in 1472.

We began our tour in the Court Room, a formal yet comfortable room intentionally designed in a Victorian style, with gas-style lamps (the different type of decor used in each room would be a constant theme of our tour). Meetings in this room are led by the Master, who sits at the head of the horseshoe – fittingly, portraits of former Masters hang on the wall.

Leaving the Court Room and wandering down the Court Corridor, we paused to admire the magnificent maroon and gold Spode-Copeland dinner service on display: Thwaytes china, which is named after a benefactor to the Company, William Thwaytes. His bequest has been used to distribute ‘Thwaytes gifts’ to clothworkers every year since 1866, at a special luncheon on St Thomas Eve.

From here, we arrived in the Drawing Room. Smaller than any of the other rooms we had so far seen, this room has a distinctly cosy feel and a distinctive mid-eighteenth century decorative scheme. I particularly liked the marble fireplace, with its carving of Apollo the sun god and its accompanying fire screen embroidered with the arms of the Company by former apprentices at the Royal School of Needlework – with whom the Company has a long connection. It is personal touches such as these which make the Hall such an interesting place to visit – many of its furnishings have been donated by Members or made by people connected to the Clothworkers.

Venturing into the building’s Entrance Hall you experience a real “wow” moment as you take in the Art Deco character of this long, elegant room with its marble columns and pilasters. The Company’s Foundation Charter, complete with Henry VIII’s seal, hangs by the entrance and various items from the Company’s collections of archives and designer bookbindings are displayed in glass cabinets.

Next stop: the marble-clad Grand Staircase, where I immediately fell in love with a beautiful set of 18th century tapestries hanging below a glazed dome. These depict scenes from the story of Cyrus, King of Persia – and have to be seen to be believed; my photo, below, barely does them justice. Commissioned for Empress Maria Theresa, the Hapsburg Empress, the tapestries were woven in Brussels and once hung in the House of Lords.

Tapestries - Reception Landing

We then found ourselves upon the Reception Landing, face to face with a striking stained glass window commemorating Samuel Pepys. Pepys, it transpired, was Master of the Clothworkers’ Company from 1677-1678 (honestly, that man gets EVERYWHERE. I’m yet to visit a building in London which doesn’t have some sort of connection to him).

It’s fair to say that our next port of call, the Reception Room, took our collective breath away. Decorated in the style of John and Robert Adam, with furnishings including chandeliers with Flemish droplets, a Victorian plaster ceiling and a Kidderminster carpet, for me its most beautiful feature was undoubtedly the blue silk & cotton damask wall coverings, specially woven for the Company by one of the last silk mills in Britain. I was also very struck by the large landscape painting by no other than Edward Lear – I hadn’t known this until today, but during his lifetime Lear was more appreciated for his painting than for his verse.

Finally, we saw inside the Livery Hall – the focal point for the Company’s hospitality, made light and airy by its impressive stained glass windows. One of the largest livery halls in the City, this room has been designed in the style of the late 17th century and its wooden panelling and minstrels’ gallery evoke the spirit of Sir Christopher Wren and his favourite craftsman Grinling Gibbons.

It’s impossible to summarise 500 years of history into one blog post, but hopefully the above provides a flavour of who the Clothworkers are and how impactful and interesting their home is. Today’s visit well and truly whetted my appetite to visit more of the livery halls; expect more posts upon this subject to follow…

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